I often use President Obama to open my training sessions. More accurately it is Senator Obama, because I usually show a video of his address to the Democratic Convention in 2004 as an example of a great speech. It ticks all of the boxes of a great performance; vivid language that paints pictures, measured delivery and repetition of key messages, storytelling and connection with the audience. It is a masterpiece (and well worth a watch even as a poignant reminder of happier and more hopeful times).
I don’t show it to fluster my delegates, or to set an impossible goal. No, the point I make is that with the right preparation, anyone can deliver a message as effectively as Obama.
No one really enjoys being grilled by a journalist or presenting to a large audience – we all get nervous and we all worry about making mistakes. Three things separate those who perform well in these situations from those who struggle; and it really has nothing to do with being introvert or extrovert, a ‘natural performer’ or a big ego. Simply put, it is about having a structure for what you want to say; practising and preparing yourself physically.
Last month I premiered a new training course looking at these three aspects aided by a LAMDA-trained theatre director and acting coach.
We started (after Obama) by identifying the key elements participants want to communicate, who they are talking to and who they are talking about. Who are the heroes and villains, what’s the core narrative and what do they want the audience to do as a result of hearing the story? With these building blocks we create a simple narrative structure.
Structure is important because, although most corporate leaders and spokespeople know a great deal about their business, products, customers and the problems they are solving, they often do not have a clear way to communicate them. A simple story structure makes it easier to remember the points you need to communicate. It also builds confidence as there are clear links between one point and the next as the hero’s journey progresses.
A simple story structure makes it easier to remember the points you need to communicate. It also builds confidence
Interestingly, I’ve found that as individuals build their narrative structure, they worry less about memorising specific phrases. They become more natural and fluent speakers, and more engaging as they talk to an audience rather than try to deliver memorised lines.
But, this does not mean you should not practise.
The basic rule of thumb is to spend 10 times longer practising than you spend presenting. So, for a 20-minute presentation or speech that is 3 hours and 20 minutes practice. As with most things, little and often is better than a big cramming session the evening before. Practise telling the story – not memorising lines. Get comfortable bringing specific anecdotes, examples and data to use to illustrate each point of the story.
Practise telling the story – not memorising lines
Finally, once you have your content and your mind prepared, you need to prepare your voice. Just as athletes warm up their bodies before a race, so actors warm their voices before performance, and you should do the same. Nerves can tighten our throats and constrict our breathing. Conversely, spending a few minutes focusing on breathing and warming up the voice will ease nerves.
In our training we spend a couple of hours exploring how to make our voices the best the can be; where do they resonate; how to get variation and emotion into them; how to engage and retain attention and how to signal key parts of our story with pauses, tone and emphasis. The techniques can be used as a full 30-minute warm up, a quick 10-minute prep, or an emergency 2-minute nerve-calming.
With these elements in place even the most nervous speaker has the ability to deliver a compelling media interview or presentation. Reaction to the course so far has been excellent. If you’d be interested in learning more about it, please drop me a line.